Sunday, June 04, 2006

Hunting the Great Cliché = Great American Novel

History of the term ... "Great American Novel" ....

(slightly late for the GAT exhibit ... but good useful information,


Hunting the Great Cliché
The Strangest Thing About That New York Times List Was Its Premise


The question seems simple enough, even if the answer is not: "What is
the best work of fiction of the last 25 years?" The idle American
contest in the New York Times two weeks ago asked 124 critics,
authors, and editors for the best work, not a best work, the
implication being that there can only be one. Toni Morrison's Beloved
was duly cited. But the singularity of that question begged the cliché
that Times critic A. O. Scott immediately invoked in his introductory
essay: the Great American Novel. Granted, Scott classes the Great
American Novel as a fantastical creature along the lines of Sasquatch,
but then he promptly straps on his snowshoes and tries to hunt it down

Where did this mythical beast come from?

The Great Gatsby is one of the other usual quarries whenever critics
don their dorky orange hunting vests. Yet even by that novel's
publication in 1925, our literary Sasquatch was old and toothless,
because a few years earlier critic Carl Van Doren had spotted the Big
Hairy Phrase loping through an 1872 North American Review essay by T.
S. Perry. Dig up that volume and you discover that the first thing
Perry did was dismiss the idea: "We have often wondered that the
people who raise the outcry for the 'Great American Novel' did not see
that, so far from being of any assistance to our fellow countryman who
is trying to win fame by writing fiction, they have rather stood in
his way by setting up before him a false aim for his art, and by
giving the critical reader a defective standard by which to judge his

That's hardly an auspicious beginning. But I couldn't help feeling
that I'd encountered the phrase even earlier. And unlike Carl Van
Doren, I was backed by the greatest intellectual resource in human
history: a university library that sells Mountain Dew in the lobby.
Along with its endless aisles of crumbling bound magazines, there are
also millions of searchable pages of 19th-century periodicals now
digitized by everyone from the New York Times and the Times of London
to the Making of America project and But even
before I sat down and booted up, I remembered where I'd first spotted
the phrase: in a book by that most astute of American observers, P. T.

"In what business is there not humbug?" he asks in his 1866 book
Humbugs of the World. Barnum immediately cites crooked milkmen, shifty
land agents, and of course, "the publisher with his great American
Novel." Lest you suspect that old P. T. is a little hard on the
publishers, dialing our library Wayback Machine a decade backward
materializes this bit of fluffery from the Tioga County Agitator for
February 1, 1855: "This is the great American novel so loudly called
for by the new party." And what immortal novel is it? Stanhope
Burleigh, by Helen Dhu. You know, the famous novel about... oh, you
don't know.

Still, the choice of Helen Dhu is telling: It was the pseudonym used
by Ellen Brown Lester for what was in fact a deeply bigoted and
anti-Catholic novel. The full title of the book is the almost
comically baiting Stanhope Burleigh: The Jesuits in Our Homes. And
that "new party" that the newspaper had referred to as demanding a
Great American Novel? That would be the xenophobic Know-Nothing Party.
I won't go into 1850s political history, but let's just say that if
they were still around today, they'd send the National Guard to build
a 20-foot high fence around Ireland.

All of which makes the very notion of the Great American Novel sound,
well, un-American. And so it is. The earliest use I found dates to
August 7, 1852, where it was used not by a critic but by a publisher
right you were, Mr. Barnum to hype the first serialized issue of a new
book. The great novel in question? Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe's work
certainly has a historical claim, if not an aesthetic one, to that
honor. But the granting of such a title does seem curiously
restrictive in a country composed of a multitude of regional voices
and genres, a defiant and unruly mess of democratic artistry. To
create a hierarchy to coronate the Great American Novel smacks of the
monarchic class system this country was founded to spurn. And perhaps
that's because the idea was invented by Stowe's publisher in London.

"The Great American Novel" is not American at all: It's British.

Paul Collins is the author of several books, including Banvard's
Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World.

Sanjeev Narang


email: ask {*at*} eConsultant dot com
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